Spring Speeds By (Stillwater Diary)

Kwanzan cherry tree, Stone Ridge, NY, 4/23/17

In late April and early May, work, fun and a Labrador health emergency kept us in New York, or sent us home from Stone Ridge at 3:00 am (no traffic on the Thruway or in town, as we drove though the night, too tired for sleep).

The Kwanzan cherry tree blossoms, all deep pink potential in the third week of April, were chunky pale pink confetti in the grass or camouflaged in the profuse copper-to-green leaves by mid-May. The Aristocrat pear flowers had gone from sparse to done.

Kwanzan cherry tree blossoms, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/14/17

Aristocrat pear tree, Stone Ridge, NY, 4/23/17

But I didn’t miss the show put on by the wild cherry (obviously not a rose, but qualifying as a floribunda), its white flowers taking advantage of the contrast provided by the bark of the maple behind it and the cloudless blue sky. Nor was I too late to see the pink pouches, opening to reveal groups of eager chartreuse hickory leaves.

Wild cherry, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/20/17

Hickory, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/8/17

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David and Goliath in Lower Manhattan

Steve James, NYC, 5/18/17

Early in filmmaker Steve James’s riveting new documentary, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” about the overzealous prosecution of the 2,531st largest bank in the United States, local TV reporter Ti-Hua Chang, appears on screen. He compares the five-year legal contest between the founder and principals of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the Sung family, and the prosecutors working for New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., to the showdown between David and Goliath. “But,” Chang says, “They had a slingshot…the Sungs are a family of lawyers.” Yes, that made it possible for them to understand their fight, but their real weapon was made of up their decency, integrity, belief in honor and justice, responsibility to community, and deep love of family.

After a successful career as a lawyer and real estate developer, Thomas Sung, the family patriarch (born in Shanghai in 1935) founded Abacus in 1984. He was personally aware that while the banks operating in New York City’s Chinatown were eager for deposits, they didn’t understand their customers’ culture and were reluctant even to lend to well-to-do immigrants in the community. The family chose to name their bank after the Chinese “calculator,” a national treasure.

The five-year ordeal began on a Friday in December 2009, when the oldest Sung daughter, Vera, the bank’s Director and Closing Attorney, noticed financial peculiarities during a closing on a residential property. A phone call to the loan officer, Ken Yu, proved unsatisfactory, and the loan didn’t close. On Monday, having discovered a pattern of theft by Yu, Abacus President and CEO Jill Sung fired him and referred the case to her compliance officer. Two other loan officers involved in lesser wrongdoing were also fired. Abacus notified Fannie Mae, which had bought several of its loans.

The potential buyers of the house lost their 10% deposit and demanded reimbursement from Abacus. They were told to file a complaint with the local precinct. Soon the Major Economic Crimes Bureau of the NY County DA’s office requested information from Abacus, which sent binders bursting with records (and, eventually, during the course of the investigation turned over 600,000 pages of documents). The family believed Yu was being investigated, only later realizing that the targets were several other employees and the bank itself.

Indictments, infected with more than a low-level strain of racism, were issued in 2012. The defendants, Abacus employees, were perp walked, handcuffed and chained together, described by “Abacus” interviewee, investigative journalist Matt Taibbi, as a “Stalinist-looking chain gang.” Chanterelle Sung, the youngest daughter, then still working as an ADA, said that she’d “never seen anything like” the treatment of the defendants, as if “it was the case of the century.” Angry at “arrogance and incompetence,” she quit her job to help her family.

James, who was introduced to the Sungs by his producer Mark Mitten (who had known Vera for many years) and “fully let into their lives,” also interviewed Cyrus Vance, Jr., his prosecution team, two conflicted jurors, investigative journalists and the two lawyers who represented the Sung family.

The trial began in January 2015, with Ken Yu as the poorly chosen star witness, who repeatedly perjured himself. Barred from shooting the proceedings, James uses vivid, evocative illustrations by Christine Cornell with reenactments to fascinating effect, transforming accounts of the minutiae of mortgage fraud and banking regulations into the stuff of a thriller.

Spoiler Alert: Trial verdict is in the next paragraph.

Closing arguments were given on day 67 of the trial. On June 4, after four months, Abacus was found not guilty on all 240 counts. Jill said that it was, “a waste, tragedy. (Our) goal (was) not to be vindicated but to serve the community. Tom Sung, with pride, said it made “my daughters stronger.” Vera added, that a friend said that “the verdict ‘made her proud to be Chinese-American,’ which made (our ordeal) worthwhile.”

James, when he initially met the Sungs joked to Mitten, that with three daughters involved in a “kingdom” built by their father, that “we might have a modern-day King Lear story.” But “as we filmed, it became clear that…it’s an inspiration version with a loving and quite hilarious family, united against all the odds…an anti-King Lear story.”

Abacus remains the only United States bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to the 2008 crisis.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” will open on Friday, May 19 at IFC Center, with a Q&A with Steve James and the Sung family following the 6:20 pm show, moderated by Heidi Ewing, and an intro at the 8:25 pm show. On Saturday, May 20 there will be Q&As with Steve James and the Sung family following both the 6:20 pm and 8:25 pm shows, moderated by Morgan Spurlock and Ursula Liang, respectively. On Sunday, May 21, a Q&A with the Sung family, moderated by Ti-Hua Chang will follow 4:15 pm show. The film will open in Los Angeles on Friday, June 9 at Landmark Nuart.

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Fearless Women, On Screen and Behind the Camera

Allison Anders, top row center, and clockwise, her mother, Alberta, daughters, Tiffany* and Devon, and her sister, Dominique, Los Angeles, November 1983

“Gas Food Lodging” (1992), Allison Anders’ seminal second feature, made without asking permission, stars Brooke Adams as Nora, a waitress and single mother in “Nowheresville, New Mexico,” trying to balance raising her teenage daughters, Trudi and Shade (Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk), in a trailer park, with what hardly qualifies as a love life.

On Monday, May 15 at 7:00 pm, Film Forum will have  a special screening (DCP restoration) of “Gas Food Lodging” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film’s U.S. premiere at the landmark independent and foreign film triplex on Houston Street. Allison Anders and Brooke Adams will appear in person for an interview with Film Forum Repertory Program Director Bruce Goldstein and an audience Q&A.

I met Allison when we worked together on Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas.” She got her job by endlessly writing letters to Wim. I asked for mine when I photographed him in Salzburg in July 1982. It was quite improbable that either of us, then without experience working on movies, would have gotten such exciting employment.

We hung out after work in inadvertently perfect vintage motels, at meals grabbed between the scenes that were being shot, in LA with her family, who took me to the since-bulldozed folk art paradise, Old Trapper’s Lodge (the giant statues live on at Pierce College in Woodland Hills), and walked around the business area of Houston, near our hotel, eerily empty on a early Sunday morning.

*Tiffany, who became a singer/songwriter, as well as a highly-respected music supervisor for film and TV, is wearing a Bow Wow Wow t-shirt.

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“Homeless–In All Countries”

Maria Schrader, NYC, 8/7/00

Shot in enveloping widescreen, director/co-writer Maria Schrader’s “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” opens with the frame filled with vibrant tropical flowers. As the camera pulls back, it reveals an extravagantly decorated, enormous banquet table in an elegant, old-world style room at Rio de Janeiro’s exclusive Jockey Club in August 1936. Stefan Zweig (Josef Hader), the internationally celebrated Austrian writer, is being feted, the day after he gave a reading from his latest book, which drew 2,000 people.

Zweig, a Jew, is banned from publishing in Nazi Germany. Attuned to the approaching danger, he had left his home in Salzburg in 1934, two days after it was searched by the police, for London, but remains consumed with the deteriorating situation in Europe. Believing, if somewhat naively, that Brazil is a model for co-existence of people of different races, religions and classes, Zweig addresses the gathering, praising the country as, “a vision for the future.”

He is determined to eventually make a new life in Brazil. Suffering from the loss of his country, culture and language (his book are widely published, but only in translation), Zweig wants to find a place, where as a writer and committed pacifist, he can work, giving voice to his outrage and despair at the destruction. He rejects any role/responsibility as an artist to speak out publicly, and during an interview in Buenos Aires at the 1936 PEN writers’ congress refuses to make a statement to a New York-based journalist condemning Germany.

The film is divided into episodes (Schrader says, “I wanted it to have an immediacy as if we opened a window six times–for 20 minutes each–to be part of Stefan Zweig’s life in real time”) and follows the writer in exile from 1936 through 1942. He travels with his younger second wife and secretary, Lotte (Aenne Schwarz), in South America–where he lectures and gathers material for his book on Brazil–and stays briefly in New York, visiting his first wife, Friderike (Barbara Sukowa), and his U.S. publisher, and in New Haven. There he finishes his autobiography, “The World of Yesterday.”

Zweig is ultimately unable to find home, although he genuinely admires the architecture, landscape and people of Petrópolis, the tropical Brazilian town where he and Lotte settled in 1941. Despite his depression, it was there he wrote “The Royal Game,” possibly his most famous work.

Schrader’s long, final shot, in and outside the couple’s bedroom in February 1942, spectacularly uses a mirror, to show Zweig’s choice not to begin his life and work again at 60, and his inability to transcend his expatriate psychology, feeling underserving of his safety while Europe is engulfed by misery.

Zweig “was a visionary, dedicating a large part of his writings to the utopian idea of a peaceful, united Europe without any national borders,” says Schrader. “He believed in the peacemaking power of cultural exchange and variety. His creativity had its source in his curious and enthusiastic appreciation of ideas and people. ”

“Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” will open on Friday, May 12 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in Los Angeles on Friday, June 16 at the Laemmle Theaters.

I shot Maria Schrader in 2000, for the New York release of “Aimée & Jaguar,” a very moving story of the love and courage of two women in Berlin during World War II. Schrader indelibly starred in the latter role. It was a great shoot and I was so happy that Sasha Berman (who made it happen, and is also expertly representing “Stefan Zweig”) accompanied Schrader to my studio.

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The Man (Unfortunately) Is (Now) the Message

Laura Poitras, NYC, 1/13/17

Academy Award winning-director (“Citzenfour”) Laura Poitras’s complicated new documentary “Risk,” is a seemingly all-access portrait of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the media organization he founded in 2006.

The film, shot over six years, beginning in 2010, premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar and was subsequently re-edited for several months as the world/WikiLeaks situation shifted. “Risk” considers Assange’s work as a defender of freedom of information, his principles (or lack thereof) and pragmatism, and his outsize ego, that shields him from concern about the real-world ramifications of the leaks. Long seen as an ally of the left (WikiLeaks enabled the deeply courageous Chelsea Manning to leak Iraqi war materials), Assange and his brand suffered a massive body blow when WikiLeaks published the emails gleaned from Russia’s hack of the DNC, during the brutal 2016 presidential election.

While Poitras is ambivalent about Assange (and in voiceover says, “I don’t tell him that I don’t trust him”) and his work, I have an antipathy toward him as another powerful male narcissist with serious problems with women. After last week’s screening, a friend, a well-respected film critic, expressed similar feelings. Assange’s inability to even address the sexual assault allegations leveled by two women in Sweden is the main issue (and he has been holed up in Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly five years to avoid extradition on those charges).

But Assange’s attitude toward and treatment of the women, particular Sarah Harrison, who work with (not for) him are also problematic. An ancient “joke” about SDS (Students for Democratic Society), an organization that dissolved in 1969, applies to WikiLeaks: “men make policy, women make coffee.” Assange treats Harrison like a secretary and chauffeur. She calls the U.S. State Department to get Clinton on the phone for him, although he’s sitting across the table, doing nothing except telling her what to say. Assange could make his own phone calls. He later asks, “What’s for dinner?” And another woman, outside of the frame, answers, “Lamb chops.”

Yet I’m still a defender of the rights of WikiLeaks, horrified by the latest undemocratic noise from Jeff Sessions and James Comey. Poitras wrote, “The recent threats against WikiLeaks and their staff by the director of the CIA and the Attorney General are chilling. These threats should be interpreted for what they are: an aggressive effort on the part of the Trump administration to silence the free press and attack the First Amendment.”

“Risk” opens today in New York at IFC Center and Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, and nationwide. Laura Poitras will be in conversation with academic and author Kate Crawford at IFC’s 7:25 pm show, and with Jameel Jaffer, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, at the 9:35 pm show.

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Immigrants Are Welcome Here, But Not NotMyPresident

West Side Highway, between 44th and 45th Streets, NYC, 5/4/17

Demonstrators along the West Side Highway in midtown unwelcomed Trump back to the town where he was resoundingly defeated in the 2016 election (in Manhattan, 64,929 to Clinton’s 579,013). As the motorcade passed, the crowd ferociously chanted, “New York hates you,” “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA,” “We are the popular vote,” and breaking into song, “Olé, olé, olé, olé, fuck Trump, fuck Trump.”

Kept out of the conflict in Vietnam by debilitating bone spurs in one foot, or the other (he doesn’t remember left or right), the incompetent-chief now loves to play at military–officiously over-saluting “his” officers and rah, rah, rahing at veterans, like at tonight’s dinner speech at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

West Side Highway, between 44th and 45th Streets, NYC, 5/4/17

West Side Highway, between 44th and 45th Streets, NYC, 5/4/17

West Side Highway, between 44th and 45th Streets, NYC, 5/4/17

Maybe Trump was worried there would be too much noise from the patriots in the streets around his monstrous Fifth Avenue building for him to get a good night’s sleep, because after the event on the aircraft carrier, he was off to yet another of his gaudy golf resorts (for the weekend, of course), this one in Bedminster, NJ. With the season at Mar-a-Lago winding down, the disruptive circus seems to be moving north.

RESIST.

Bedminister, NJ, 5/3/05

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May Day, Foley Square, New York (Sanctuary) City

Foley Square, NYC, 5/1/17

May Day, a celebration of workers’ dignity, rights, and strength, originated in 1886 in Chicago, part of the labor movement’s fight for the eight-hour work day. In the Untied States, the international workers’ holiday has become a crucial part of the immigrant rights movement.

Today, from 5:00 pm-7:30 pm in Foley Square, at a rally organized by Rise Up New York!, a coalition of labor and immigrant rights groups, faith and community organizations, New Yorkers gathered to protest Trump’s racist and anti-worker agenda. And, to fight, as Antonia Rivas, child care provider and member, SEUI Local 99 has written, to “win an America where the value of our work is matched by our wages, we have a say at work and in our political system through unions, and where every family and community has the opportunity to thrive.”

Speakers included individuals who have been directly impacted by the president’s Muslim and refugee ban and indiscriminate immigration enforcement actions; Linda Sarsour, Palestinian American civil rights activist; New York City Public Advocate Leticia James; New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito; Héctor Figueroa, President, SEIU 32BJ; Cecile Richards, President, Planned Parenthood; and Mayor Bill de Balsio (who was all but sporting his perpetual badge of honor, earned by having been labeled “the worst mayor in the U.S., & probably the worst mayor in the history of #NYC” by Trump in a November 2015 tweet.)

RESIST.

Foley Square, NYC, 5/1/17

Foley Square, NYC, 5/1/17

Foley Square, NYC, 5/1/17

Foley Square, NYC, 5/1/17

Foley Square, NYC, 5/1/17

Foley Square, NYC, 5/1/17

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